The Monsoon

I’d been in a dry spot for about ten years. Or, if you prefer, I had an excruciating case of ‘writer’s block’.  It happens, and it can be devastating.

When I first started writing for the sheer joy of telling stories, the ideas came tumbling over each other.  I wrote, rewrote, rethought, shifted plot lines and timelines, deepened characters – in short, wallowed.  I was younger, I had the energy, everything was going well in my life (I wouldn’t mind being in my early twenties again).  I had an immense output and an ego to match.

Creating, for me, is the most wonderful part of writing.  Forming stories with my own energy and skill, channelling the flood of ideas, molding them, riding the flow – it’s intoxicating, ravishing, irresistible.  And it accounts for only a small portion of the time that a writer spends at his craft.  Thomas Edison said,  “Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”  Definitely true, but ah! that one percent–!

That is how it was when I first started writing with all my strength.  I would catch the spark of an idea and go with it, I wouldn’t stop – how could I when it was so obviously what I was made to do?  (I was rather young then.)  I remember working on one story – I’m finishing it up after a long hiatus, since I burned myself out on it – where I had produced perhaps 200 pages of manuscript and then decided that a specific character’s development needed to go in another direction.  I ripped the plot line apart, redid it, rewrote it – it was a massive effort, and I didn’t blink.

At that time I lacked a computer with electronic storage capability.  My early manuscripts were put in binders.  The stories and society underlying those early manuscripts changed and evolved to the point where the manuscripts were worthless except as a record of where I started.  In the course of moving six or seven times over the years they were packed away and forgotten.  It didn’t matter – I’d moved on.

At any given time I was generally working on up to three projects.  I would pick away at one if I hit a dry spot with the other.  If the first one took fire, I could put the second aside and worked on the first.  It helped to cut down on the almost despairing feel that you get when a project is finished.  But there is a cost: you can’t sustain that level of activity for very long.

For one thing, life gets in the way, and I had not (at that time) learned to nurture my craft, to bank the fires, so to speak, against a cold night.  Things happened outside my writing world that led to pulling up stakes and moving elsewhere.  Other concerns intruded, and I lost touch.  The spark was gone.  Years passed and I looked at what I thought was the wreckage of my writing.

I hadn’t stopped writing, actually.  I’d kept my hand in.  I used words with my work, wrote articles for clubs, did various types of writing,  but nothing in the line I loved.  It was like trying to run a marathon with a sprained ankle.  I’d produce a couple of pages, maybe a note or two in my notebook, but nothing more.  The energy just wasn’t there.   I thought it might come back; things were changing, I was starting to feel a change, but still…

And then, going through the chaos that is known as the shelves in my garage, I opened a box and found my three earliest manuscripts.   They had been the raw material for several other story lines that I still have going (and near completion) but they themselves had been so altered, adjusted, tweaked, rewritten, they were useless.  On top of that, since they were manuscript pages, I’d have to retype about six hundred (1.5 space 10 pt) manuscript pages  if I had wanted to try to salvage the story line.  Um…  No.

I frowned at them, and then shook my head, toying with the notion of throwing them out, but then I hesitated.  Ah, yes, I thought,  It could be fun to reread these.

I took them inside, sat down, put my feet up and read.  Gosh, I’d been green then.  Lots of energy, but not a lot of polish.  I also didn’t know as much about life then.

I leafed through them, read…  Yes, all those issues, but still…  Not too bad.

I came to a specific scene involving three characters.  One character, who had started out (originally) as a villain, had morphed into a hero.  In fact, I’d fallen in love with  him (did you read my post about ‘Author’s Pets’?) but had enough subtlety not to ram him down a reader’s throat.  In this scene, the two heroes, one of them your typical medieval-type heroic hero, had cornered the once-villain and all but accused him of treason.  The dialogue was involved, dramatic, there was a fine blast of fantasy, and then a sort of denouement in which the once-villain swears that he isn’t one and the heroic hero leaves, which leaves the second intellectual hero and the once-villain to hash things out (they had known each other before).  The dialogue, let me add, was stilted.  At the time I’d written that, people spoke in measured, stately paragraphs.  Sitting and listening to one of my characters delivering a warlike address to the governing body would have put any spectator to sleep.

Oh, good grief!  I thought.  What a mess!  I can do better than THAT!

I fired up my computer, transcribed the chapter, and overhauled it, bringing it in line with what I knew now about those characters and their pre- and post-scene histories.  The raw emotion was tamed, the dialogue was far more polished, the scene was (if I may say so) splendidly done.  And in adjusting that scene, the consequences to the story altered.  One very likeable character did not die young; the once-villain was never a villain, and there was no need for him to die magnificently and tragically.  The Heroic Hero got his ears clipped in a most satisfying way, and the scene itself ended up being amusing for me, rather than touching.

Here is part of it.  The Healer (who doesn’t appear directly in this snippet) is the Intellectual Hero.  Sinthai is the Heroic Hero.  Lokathi (also known as ‘Haldann’) is the once-villain.  To ‘Open’ is a sort of teleportation, rather like ‘beaming up’, that I discarded fairly quickly after I first wrote this manuscript.

The sparkle deepened to a flicker and then a blaze.  The blaze intensified to the sound of a rising gale.  Sinthai pushed away, his attention riveted on the two pairs of eyes, dark and pale, that were locked on  each other.   The wind rose to a shriek and the light slowly scattered, leaving Lokathi alone and white-faced in the suddenly dark room.  As Sinthai watched, Lokathi collapsed to his knees and doubled against the carpeted floor, his hands clenched at his temples.

Sinthai jumped to his feet. “What happened?” he demanded. “What did you do with the Healer?”

Lokathi raised his head and stared at him through half-blind eyes.  “What did I do with him – ?”  he repeated through his teeth.  He pushed to a kneeling position, one hand braced against the floor, the other at his forehead.  “As far as I know, he’s Opened to the Temple.  I wish him a happy arrival!”

“But he didn’t take you with him!”

“He couldn’t,” Lokathi said. “I refused.”


Lokathi directed a pained glance at him through slitted eyes.  “I. Told.  Him.  No.” he repeated slowly and clearly as he climbed to his feet and stood swaying, the heels of his hands pressed against his eyes.  “Oh, dear God…”

“But you can’t fight a Healer!”

Lokathi lowered his hands and stared at him.  “Obviously you can, idiot!”  he retorted.  “…though if I’d known the result it would have-” 

Sinthai’s’ eyes narrowed. “You just called me an idiot!”‘

Lokathi muttered something barely audible about shoes fitting.

It was enough. Sinthai rose as Lokathi went slowly to Doren’s chair and collapsed into it, shading his eyes and watching his approach with a derisive smile. 

“I called you an idiot, Prince-General,” he said through his teeth.  “I meant it with all my heart.  I’ve wanted to say it to you for a long time, and not just to you only.  You have a sword on you, you’re welcome to take it and kill me this moment.  You’ve wanted to, seemingly, for some time, and I can tell you’re ready right now.  At this moment I’d welcome it.”

Sinthai’s color rose. “Don’t talk nonsense,” he said stiffly.  “If—”  He saw the painful rise and fall of Lokathi’s breathing and broke off.  “You’re in pain aren’t you?  By god you don’t lack courage!  But I still don’t understand what just happened!”

Lokathi closed his eyes. “What on earth is there to understand?” he sighed.  “I fought him off.”

“…And he did a very good job of it, Sinthai” Doren said, coming through the door.  “Well done, Haldann!  It appears we were wrong in some assumptions about you.”

It flowed.  It worked.  I had the ability to take a really wretched piece of writing and fix it.  Of course I still couldn’t salvage the manuscripts.  The story and characters had changed far, far beyond their original concept, but it had been good to wander through there and see what I’d done and what I could still do.

The most wonderful result, for me, was the discovery that the spark had never died.  It was there, I was ready, and I had my energy.

So, why did this little exercise suddenly make me able to write again?  I asked a friend who is a clinical psychologist.  “You touched that period of fecundity, and were able to reconnect with it!” she said.

Well, it sounds interesting, but I think it’s something simpler than that.  I set out to exercise my muscles, so to speak.  And I discovered that I still had the touch, I just hadn’t used it in the dry years.  I also learned that I must discipline myself more strongly.  Just going with what makes you sing might be satisfying, but you have to practice.  Take notes. Think things through…

It’s a work in progress.

But it’s working…

The Author’s Pet

I read a book a while back that had me puzzled.  It was well crafted, colorful, moved at a good pace, but there was something skewed…  I put my finger on it when I reread the description of the hero.  He was just fabulous.  His name consisted of four luscious, historical names strung together.  He was a duke, the king’s best friend.  But the thing that brought everything into focus was his physical description, right down to his blond sideburns, in lingering detail.  Gosh, he was handsome, with that bloom of golden hairs that bordered those sideburns. 

Yep,  I thought.  An author’s pet.

You run into them fairly often in detective series.  The characters who set foot in a messy situation and you just know that things will be straightened out at once.  They’re always fabulously handsome or beautiful, unbelievably accomplished.

A recent series of mysteries had as its main sleuth a woman who was, among other things, an Olympic Equestrian, a (top winning) competitive ballroom dancer in addition to being young, beautiful, and a top-ranking forensic anthropologist.  I wasn’t sure when she slept.  Another story featured a female sleuth, fresh out of college, who happened to be visiting the UK when a bad situation came up.  She was summoned to Scotland Yard and had an interview with one of the top-ranking people there.

“I want you to assist us with this,” he says to her.  “We need your trained mind.”

Trained mind?  I thought.  In a kid that age?  Well, to be fair, it was the writer’s first book, and from what I could see he/she was trading on the fact that his/her mother was a best-selling author.  And the writer had quite an author’s pet.

Writers do have them.  I have a character who could be one.  I love writing about him.  He’s a lot of fun, lends a lot of color to his stories (I’m working on a sequel).  He’s my own invention – except for his name, which is historical.  Who is he?  An Egyptian crown prince.  Named for the eldest son of Ramesses II, but I went off on a tangent with his story.

I don’t think he is quite the ‘ta-DA!’ sort.  I worked very hard to keep him from being one.  He has his own reality.

I think what lies at the heart of ‘Authors’ Pets’ is the author imposing his or her own desires on the character without taking into account the personality of the character as developed through the author’s writing.  The moment you put words on paper they become real.  If you have something happen in your story, it is fact.  So, if in the course of a story you have a character that behaves in a certain way and has (at least in your mind) certain characteristics, then everything he does must be in conformity with his reality as you have given it.

My Crown Prince character (his name is ‘Hori’) started out as a villain of sorts.  About twenty years ago I started writing various vignettes based on books I was working on at the time.  This was before I had a computer and electronic storage ability.  These vignettes (I called them ‘fragments’ or ‘blips’) occurred to me and I typed them out.  I had several stories based on the character of Khaemwaset, the fourth son of Ramesses and, at one point, his crown prince.  We know a fair amount about him.  In the course of weaving stories around him, I jotted an account of a jubilee festival that he hosted for his father when he was High Priest at Memphis.

His older brother, Amunhorkhepechef, the Crown Prince, makes an appearance and says something nasty. 

The jottings sit in a three-ring binder, but Pharaoh’s Son owes some of its substance to them.  In that novel a colossal statue falls in the middle of a festival throng, causing havoc.  Khaemwaset (from now on ‘Khay’) looks into matters; it happened in his own backyard, since he is the Vizier, or Prime Minister, of Northern Egypt, and the High Priest of the temple where it occurred.  He asks for assistance from Pharaoh, who sends his Crown Prince, Amunhorkhepechef (from now on ‘Hori’) to oversee things with his brother.

Hori was not a happy fellow.  He was arrogant, had a sharp tongue, and did not suffer fools gladly.  He strode into the story…

When you write about someone, you work both forward (in time) and backward (in history).  Going forward the character might do something…but that may have arisen out of something that happened before.  So it was with Hori.  His history developed – soldier who is happiest overseeing the military concerns of the realm, called back to court against his wishes and angry and unhappy.  So why did Khay ask for him?  Hm…  Because they had renewed their friendship and Khay knew that Hori was unhappy.

The story moved from there.  A character that was supposed to be, if not a villain, certainly an unpleasant sort of person with humorous involvement, became one of the two heroes of the story.  I guess I let him grow up.

I’ve read books where the characters appear to have been stamped out and maneuvered like puppets.  I’ve read scenes that, given the characters’ personalities and histories as developed in the course of the story, should never have happened.  Well…

Georgette Heyer, in Sylvester, or The Wicked Uncle, expresses things nicely:

These naïve words struck Phoebe dumb for several moments.  It had not previously occurred to her that Ianthe might identify herself with The Lost Heir‘s golden-haired sister.  Having very little interest in mere heroes and heroines she had done no more than depict two staggeringly beautiful puppets, endow them with every known virtue, and cast them into a series of hair-raising adventures from which, she privately considered, it was extremely improbable they would ever have extricated themselves.

It’s all part of letting go, letting the thing you love – in this case the story and the character – be true to itself.

Writing Tools

Look familiar?

I like tools.  Any type of tools.  I can easily spend a month’s salary in a hardware store.  Or an office supply store.  Pens, pencils, screwdrivers, notebooks of all sizes, post-it notes, three-ring binders – I love them all.

But there are different types of tools, and each trade has its own.  For a writer the most important, I would imagine, are the writer’s imagination followed by his or her command of words, then grammar…  You get my drift.  I could get very philosophical and talk about writers with fabulous imaginations, but without the ability to write.  I’d love to cite Edgar Rice Burroughs, for example – except that I enjoy his writing.  But having read this passage, I can only chuckle:

“Your time shall come, then, I-Gos”, Gahan assured the other,
“and if you have any party that thinks as you do, prepare them
for the eventuality that will succeed O-Tar’s presumptuous attempt
to wed the daughter of the Warlord.  Where shall I see you again,
and when?  I go now to speak with Tara, Princess of Helium.”
    (From The Chessmen of Mars (c) 1922 by Edgar Rice Burroughs)
To be a writer, you need to have a writer’s abilities, so we can set that to one side.  But what of the tools that help the writer to write?
Something to write with, I’d imagine.  Nowadays if you don’t have a good word processing system, you’re in trouble.  I remember buying my first computer, put out by Epson.  I don’t know what its memory capacity was. I do know that if I wanted to use my word processing system (a very, very distant version of Word Perfect called ‘Professional Word’, as I recall) I had to fire up my computer (inserting the start-up disk, which was the size of a 45 record), then insert my program disk in the lower drive.  Then I could start writing.
I was resistant, initially.  What’s wrong with typing things?  I type well and quickly (110 wpm at last testing).  I was converted the first time I decided to change a character’s name and used Global Search to do so.  I never looked back.
That computer performed valiantly but was replaced in due time with one that had maybe one gigabyte of memory.  It took the diskettes that were a lot smaller and sturdier than the originals.  I converted most of them as quickly as I could.
Some place to store what you’ve written – like a diskette.  Hard copies are nice enough – except that you end up having to retype them which I now do not feel is quite so easy as I did.  Writers are always fiddling with things.  I’d make changes and save the changes – on a new diskette.  If you check out the photo, you’ll see that I have lots and lots of those diskettes – and the only machine I have that can read them is a Dell desktop that is getting old and crotchety.  (I’m writing this on an ACER Aspire that has a 300 gb hard drive, takes flash drives and CDS, and works beautifully.  But it doesn’t read my old diskettes.
Diskettes are not the only storage venues.  If you look at the photo, you’ll see a slice of my storage means: three-ring binders (the big, fat one sitting atop the bottom manuscript contains jottings on four different stories, none of which were ever saved to electronic media.  Salvageable?  Maybe.  I’m looking through them.
Then there are the notebooks.  I have lots of them.  I keep one in my purse and if something occurs to me, I jot it down.  How many times have I had a great idea for tweaking a scene, thought “Oh, I’ll remember it!” and then discovered that I couldn’t.  I came up with quite a system for jotting down, transcribing, and then marking what I transcribed.  But I hung on to the notebooks.  Lately, I was interested to see the absolute first notation on one of my books, The City of Refuge.  I had noted an idea for the story – and it was fairly well-developed – around 1984.  It sat in limbo for a time, then came into full blossom around 1994.
Pens.  Can you have enough?  I used to say that something like White-Out was a must. I don’t think so any more.
Most recently, I bought a stack of steno pads and four college-ruled 8 1/2 x 11  spiral bound notebooks.  I might need them.
In fact, I think I need to go through what I have and figure out what I need.
…and convert those old diskettes to CDS before I lose something crucial.